Japan strikes back – at the world’s richest horse race
Japanese one-two makes for an emotional Dubai World Cup – but no one should be surprised
Even the most imaginative Hollywood scriptwriter would have struggled to come up with the story which unfolded at Meydan Racecourse in Dubai this weekend.
Just over two weeks on from the earthquake and tsunami which devastated Japan and have left around 20,000 people either dead or missing, two Japanese horses - with their jockeys wearing black armbands to honour the dead - finished first and second in the world's richest horse-race, the $10m Dubai World Cup.
"I was hoping this horse would provide a victory for the Japanese people after the tragedy of the tsunami and it's unbelievable we've done it," said an ecstatic Mirco Demuro, the jockey of the World Cup winner Victoire Pisa.
Manami Ichikawa, daughter of the winning owner Yoshimi Ichikawa, was described by Racing Post reporter Graham Dench as being "practically hysterical" as she watched her father's horse - sent off as a 12-1 chance - lead in another Japanese horse, the 40-1 shot Transcend, both of them trouncing the Henry Cecil-owned favourite Twice Over. This day is for Japan and for all of the Japanese people. It's a dream - the number one thing. It's unbelievable."
Victoire Pisa, whose connections have won almost £4m, was the first Japanese horse ever to win the Dubai World Cup. But although a Japanese one-two in the world's most valuable race will surprise many, the country has been making major advances in international horse-racing for a number of years.
The rise of Japanese racing can be traced to the early 1970s, when Teruya Yoshida purchased, at a cost of $100,000, a Canadian thoroughbred called Northern Taste, for his father, owner/breeder Zenya Toshida.
Northern Taste was a son of Northern Dancer, described as "arguably the greatest stallion of the last century". He won a Group 1 race in France in 1974, but it was his remarkable success as a stallion for which he will be remembered. He sired an incredible 1,754 winners - more than any other Japanese stallion in history. His success at stud enabled the Yoshida family to purchase more high quality bloodstock for Japan.
In the late 1980s, they paid $4m for the Arc de Triomphe winner Tony Bin. A decade later Zenya Yoshida took American classic winner Sunday Silence to Japan. The horse proved a phenomenal success - siring Agnes World, Stay Gold, Deep Impact and Neo-Universe - sire of Saturday’s hero Victoire Pisa - among others.
Japanese horses - as Saturday showed - are able to compete with and beat the very best in the world.
Domestically, horse-racing in Japan is hugely popular, with around 100,000 people attending the running of the country's top race, the Japan Cup, and leading jockeys enjoying film star status.
The Japanese love a punt, too, betting more on horses than any other country in the world. A report found that in 2008 just under £14bn was wagered on horse races in Japan - that's almost £2bn more than in Britain, second on the list.
But what of the long term future of the sport in Japan, in the light of this month's natural devastation, whose economic cost has been calculated at between $122bn and $235bn by the World Bank?
Although Prime Minister Naota Kan has said that the country is facing its "most severe crisis" since World War Two, analysts are now saying that the world's third biggest economy will return to growth in the third quarter.
Seeing the resilience of the Japanese economy, and the quality of bloodstock the country has accumulated over the past decades, it's a good bet that Saturday's historic - and highly emotional - Japanese success in the Dubai World Cup will not be the last. ·